five ways of looking at a thesis 1. a thesis says something a little strange. a: by telling the story of westley and buttercups triumph

Five Ways of Looking At a Thesis
1. A thesis says something a little strange.
A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup's triumph over evil,
The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.
B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural
power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks
(baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) link the frame story to the
romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love,
that it is not natural but socialized.
Both of these statements, I would contend, are perfectly correct. Only
the second one says something, well, weird. Weird is good. Sentence A
encourages the paper to produce precisely the evidence that everybody
always talks about in The Princess Bride; sentence B ensures that the
paper will talk about something new.
Women are oppressed in Maria. Frankenstein warns society against
taking science too far. The creature starts out good and becomes bad
because of society. Yup. How can you make those things unusual?
Many good papers start by pointing out something that seems not to
make sense and then making sense of it.
2. A thesis creates an argument that builds from one point to the
next.
A: The Rules and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey both tell women how to
act.
B: By looking at The Rules, a modern conduct book for women, we can
see how Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey is itself like a conduct book,
questioning the rules for social success in her society and offering a
new model.
This concept applies mostly to comparison/contrast papers. If the
components of your argument can be rearranged without changing the
thesis, your thesis has a problem.
3. A thesis fits comfortably into the Magic Thesis Sentence (MTS).
The MTS:
By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most readers don't see;
this is important because _____.
Try it out with the above examples. I think it will please you.
4. A thesis says something about the text(s) you discuss exclusively.
Back to the first example:
A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup's triumph over evil,
The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.
B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural
power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks
(baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) link the frame story to the
romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love,
that it is not natural but socialized.
Try substituting other works:
A: By telling the story of Darcy and Elizabeth's triumph over evil,
Pride and Prejudice affirms the power of true love.
Sure. Bad sign.
B: Although the main plot of Pride and Prejudice rests on the natural
power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks
(baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) link the frame story to the
romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love,
that it is not natural but socialized.
Um, nope. Good sign.
5. A thesis makes a lot of information irrelevant.
One more time (so sue me, I like this example):
A: By telling the story of Westley and Buttercup's triumph over evil,
The Princess Bride affirms the power of true love.
A plot summary of The Princess Bride would support this thesis. Bad
sign. A strong thesis excludes most of the text in order to make a
specific claim.
B: Although the main plot of The Princess Bride rests on the natural
power of true love, an examination of the way that fighting sticks
(baseball bats, tree branches, and swords) link the frame story to the
romance plot suggests that the grandson is being trained in true love,
that it is not natural but socialized.
This reading excludes most of the text. Good sign. Your reader knows
precisely which parts of it you'll be talking about and why.
(This page was copied from
http://www.english.upenn.edu/~esimpson/Teaching/thesis.html 1/31/03
with the kind permission of Erik Simpson for use in teaching.)
Five Ways of Looking At a Thesis
1. A thesis says something a little strange.
Consider the following examples:
A: By telling a powerful story of failed love, Romeo and Juliet
demonstrates the destructive effects of family pride.
B: Although we are told from the beginning that it is a tale of
"star-crossed lovers," Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy by
calling attention to a series of near-misses, places where the
protagonists' downfall could be avoided.
C. Mercutio might seem like a minor character in Romeo and Juliet, but
his language actually tells us something important about how the play
works.
I would argue that all of these statements are perfectly correct, but
they are not all strange. The first one says something obvious about
the play; it is more of a moral than a thesis. Since the play tells us
repeatedly about "the destructive effects of family pride," your
reader does not need a paper to point that fact out. The other two say
something, well, weird. Weird is good. When you start to construct a
thesis, think about what an easy one-sentence summary of the text
would look like. Then try to come up with something more specific than
that, something with a specific twist on the standard interpretation.
2. A thesis creates an argument that builds from one point to the
next, giving the paper a direction that your reader can follow as it
develops.
This point often separates the best theses from the pack. If your
thesis leads to a paper that simply follows the plot of a text as it
goes along, it probably needs to provide a stronger statement of the
paper's logic. Example A, for example, invites a plot summary of the
play. Examples B and C say something more interesting and specific,
but you could revise them to indicate more strongly how each paper
will build its case.
3. A thesis fits comfortably into the Magic Thesis Sentence (MTS).
The MTS: By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most readers
don't see; this is important because _____.
Try it out with the above examples. Notice that the MTS adds a new
dimension to point number one above. The first part of the MTS asks
you to find something strange ("which most readers don't see"), and
the second part asks you to think about the importance of the
strangeness. Thesis A would not work at all in the MTS. Theses B and C
would work only partially; both of them would require some additional
information to work better.
4. A thesis says something about the text(s) you discuss exclusively.
If your thesis could describe many works equally well, it needs to be
more specific. Let's return to our examples from above:
A: By telling a powerful story of failed love, Romeo and Juliet
demonstrates the destructive effects of family pride.
B: Although we are told from the beginning that it is a tale of
"star-crossed lovers," Romeo and Juliet produces its tragedy by
calling attention to a series of near-misses, places where the
protagonists' downfall could be avoided.
C. Mercutio might seem like a minor character in Romeo and Juliet, but
his language actually tells us something important about how the play
works.
The worst offender by this standard would be a thesis such as "Romeo
and Juliet is a powerful story of failed love." There are thousands of
stories of failed love in print or on screen, and you can probably
think of a number of examples quickly. Example A above is a little
more specific, but not enough: the destructive effects of family pride
play a part in many books and films, whether they end happily or
sadly.
The other theses fare better. Example B uses a specific quotation and
makes a claim that would not apply, for instance, to Hamlet. Example C
certainly talks about a specific character in Romeo and Juliet, but it
would pass this test better with a specific explanation of what
exactly Mercutio's language tells us "about how the play works."
5. A thesis makes a lot of information irrelevant.
If your thesis is specific enough, it will make a point that focuses
on only a small part of the text you are analyzing. You can and should
ultimately apply that point to the work as a whole, but a thesis will
call attention to specific parts of it. Let's look at those examples
again. (This is the last time, I promise.) One way of spotting the
problem with example A is to note that a simple plot summary would
support its point. That is not true of the others: example B points to
the "near-misses" it mentions, and example C will concentrate on
Mercutio's speeches.
(This page was copied from
http://www.english.upenn.edu/~esimpson/Teaching/thesis.html 1/31/03
with the kind permission of Erik Simpson for use in teaching.)

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